My blog only exists to inform readers about places I like rather than where NOT to eat. I waste no time and web space on bad food… poor service or on invalid concepts. Writer/Tex-Mex scholar Robb Walsh, Chef Bryan Caswell and restaurateur Bill Floyd have collaborated to open El Real Tex-Mex Café on lower Westheimer in Houston in the old Tower Theatre location. In mentioning that it is in the old Tower Theatre, it should be mentioned that this is a remarkable “saving” of a Houston landmark… and one of the historic Texas-born Interstate Theaters. The restaurant has been the darling topic of local foodies for months and now, is being judged on its substance. I had lunch there to check it out and see if it jogs memories of my childhood and I believe it’s worth writing about.
Growing up in Texas in the early 50’s, my parents packed us into the car (one of our two 1950 Fords) two or three times a year, rolled the windows up in the rain or cold and chain-smoked us down to Harlingen, Raymondville, Brownsville and beyond. Trips to “the valley” were frequent, as our aunt, uncle and cousins lived there. “Mexican” food out was always on the agenda and I remember vividly the colorful chairs in the restaurants across the border, as well as my meals there. I think I have adequate perspective to talk about a restaurant that is selling “vintage Tex-Mex food”.
Colorful chairs from Felix
Houston restaurateur/community leader Felix Tijerina felt the same way about colorful furniture in Mexican restaurants in his now-closed Felix Mexican Restaurant and Walsh has restored the chairs from that restaurant for El Real. Plus-sized photos of Houston Tex-Mex pioneers Tijerina, Ninfa Laurenzo and Leo Reynosa adorn the walls in the spaces left uncovered by the HUGE screen TV that plays vintage western movies non-stop.
On weekends in Houston taquerias, Mexican families flock to enjoy Posole, a pork and hominy stew with a rich broth and garnished with sliced radishes, cilantro, chopped fresh jalapenos and onions… and a generous squeeze of lime juice. El Real offers it daily and the green (chile verde) version offered on the menu is hearty and tasty. It has nothing to do with my childhood, as I never even heard of it until I started traveling in Mexico to write about regional cuisines in my 20’s, and then I became fond of the Posole Rojo (or red chile version). Posole Verde, as served at El Real is not available at most taquerias in Houston and is excellent.
Lunch Cheese Enchilada Plate Special
If there is ONE dish that I immediately think of when I remember my Tex-Mex consuming childhood (I particularly remember eating it at El Fenix Mexican restaurant on McKinney in Dallas as a child). Cheese Enchiladas! The Cheese Enchilada Plate at El Real is served exactly as I craved it when growing up. Enchiladas, rice and beans. The waiter always had to say “Don’t touch… hot plate” to me before I tested him and burned my hand. Always. Finely-chopped onions are a necessity on it for me and I always generously dumped them over the bubbling cheese, chili con carne and chili gravy topping the enchiladas. While they aren’t automatically served with El Real’s version, they’re as close as the kitchen. I give the El Real cheese enchilada plate an A-plus.
1/2 pound Beef Fajitas lunch special
Somehow, you always have to mention the Rio Grande Valley when discussing most Tex-Mex dishes. Not too long after “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo popularized what are recognized as fajitas today (she introduced them as Tacos al Carbon) across the United States around 1972, I was one of VERY few gringos to cook in the World Championship Fajita Cookoff in Mission, Texas on the banks of the Rio Grande in the early 80’s. Having eaten and cooked fajitas for over 35 years, I can tell you that The Beef Fajitas at El Real are as good as any I’ve had in Houston. They were tender enough that I mentioned to diners at the next table that it was as if they had come pre-chewed. The marinade was not dependent upon salt for its flavor, as is so often the case today. I would have eaten all of my order, but I wanted to take some home for Sally to enjoy.
Puffy Tacos are Tex-Mex treat that I don’t remember seeing anywhere but San Antonio. I love ‘em and at the risk of appearing to write a puff piece about El Real, I suggest that you try them. They are the authentic San Antonio item and the chicken ones I had were delicious. Choose from chicken, piccadillo, or pork. They’re much crispier than the standard, typical deep fried corn tortilla taco, in my opinion. You’ll not find them anywhere else in Houston.
Traveling through Mexico, one thing that one notices is that there is a difference in the flavor of fried foods there that many restaurants here don’t duplicate. It’s because of the use of LARD to deep fry many foods. The first time I was in Puerto Nuevo, Baja Mexico and had the experience of Puerto Nuevo-style lobsters, I was shocked when I went into the kitchen for a quick lesson in cooking them. The unique wonderful flavor of the lobsters came from cooking them in Lard! The importance of the ingredient is stressed in Walsh’s writing and they use plenty of it at El Real. Don’t shake your head… it’s where much of the unique flavor at El Real comes from.
Churros with house-made ice cream
Finish off your meal with Churros (deep-fried “Mexican Donuts” that originated in Spain) and El Real’s house-made vanilla ice cream with a sprig of mint and you’ll make sure that someone at your table orders them on your next visit.
Are you wondering what the big deal is about Tex-Mex food and why a restaurant might promote its food as “vintage Tex-Mex”? After all, restaurants claiming to serve it are now all over the United States… and certainly in Houston. For one thing, from MY perspective, El Real harkens back to the days when the term Tex-Mex unapologetically meant a regional staple food genre… not a test of manhood. It was a style of cooking and dining that was the way entire families in south Texas ate most of their meals… and it was the fuel for the day rather than a contest to test the huevos of a man and his buddies.
Upstairs for a margarita and Tex-Mex memorabilia
After your meal, don’t forget to look around upstairs through what amounts to a Tex-Mex Houston museum. Photos and items such as menus, matchbooks and mementos of Houston’s icons of Mexican food, such as Felix Tijerina and Leo Reynosa are in glass cases and were curated with the help of Houston foodie Jay Francis.
El Real Tex-Mex Café is open daily for lunch and dinner at 1201 Westheimer at Yoakum:
Hours of Operation
Fri 11am – 3am
Sat (Brunch) 10am – 3am
Sun (Brunch) 10am – 11pm